Bramble's retirement no sunny event

Chairman is absolved, but career is cut short

March 15, 2002|By William Patalon III and Gus G. Sentementes | William Patalon III and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

To his closest friends, Allfirst Financial Inc. Chairman Frank P. Bramble often talked about leaving the fast-paced world of business at a relatively young age, possibly even to teach.

Bramble, 53, is getting his wish, though perhaps not in the unclouded atmosphere he might have desired. Allfirst's Dublin-based parent, Allied Irish Banks PLC, disclosed yesterday that the Allfirst chairman will retire June 1.

The announcement of Bramble's impending departure accompanied the findings of an internal AIB probe into $691 million in trading losses at Allfirst, but at the same time absolved him of blame.

The internal investigation conducted by Eugene A. Ludwig "has confirmed that Frank Bramble had no involvement in or knowledge of the improper conduct that took place in Allfirst's Treasury unit [where currency trading took place]," the company said in a statement.

According to AIB, Bramble had privately told the Dublin bank that he wanted to retire even before the losses were discovered.

Allfirst said Bramble was not available for an interview yesterday.

While Bramble was given a free pass in the fiasco, executives who know him acknowledge that he had yet to reach the level of success at Allfirst that he had been credited with at previous banking jobs.

If not for the currency debacle, with the momentum being achieved in some of the bank's basic businesses, another year at Allfirst's helm might have allowed him to leave there as a winner, too, several sources say.

But then the trading scandal broke.

"The numbers were really looking better," said an obviously disappointed executive who has worked with Bramble at several institutions.

Bramble joined First Maryland Bancorp - the forerunner of Allfirst - as president and chief executive officer in April 1994. He was viewed as an executive whose superb communication skills made him a great coalition-builder, a necessary talent. But the move rankled among some within a bank that had a history of grooming its own leaders by promoting from within.

"By and large, the employee base to this day remains skeptical of him," a former Allfirst executive said.

Prior to joining Allfirst, Bramble was tapped by Cleveland tycoon Alfred Lerner to help rescue a teetering MNC Financial Inc., parent of Maryland National Bank, the largest in the state. He took over in July 1991, at age 43. A year and a half later, he presided over the sale of MNC to NationsBank for about $1.4 billion.

As it stands now, the turnaround and sale of MNC will stand as the high-water mark of Bramble's banking career.

That's still quite an achievement for a Calvert Hall athlete who worked his way to the top from entry-level jobs, without benefit of a college degree.

Bramble's working life started in 1966 as an employee of C&P Telephone Co., emptying coins from pay telephones.

A year later, he joined First National Bank of Maryland - predecessor of Allfirst - as an audit clerk, and in 1968 he jumped to Maryland National Bank as an accounting clerk. By 1977, Bramble had risen to assistant controller.

Several more promotions had followed when, in 1979, he joined bank consultants Danielson Associates as an associate director, where he started a lifelong friendship with firm principal Arnold G. Danielson.

"He is very bright and very talented and has the strong ability to get along with people," a strength top executives need to get different factions to buy into a single strategy, Danielson said.

At the same time, he said, Bramble often spoke of retiring early, perhaps to teach college or just to be with his family.

Bramble set out on his own as a consultant before rejoining Maryland National Bank in 1983, as a vice president in the international division. When the bank began to founder after a series of bad real estate loans, he was named chief operating officer under Lerner, the bank's largest shareholder, who had assumed control. Six months later, he became chief executive officer as Lerner stepped back from the day-to-day operation, a position he held until the takeover by NationsBank.

During his tenure as a top area banker, Bramble has meant a lot to Baltimore because of his civic commitments. Bramble served on the University of Maryland Medical System Corp.'s board of directors for eight years, the last four as chairman, said Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, the president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System Corp., who also is on Allfirst's board of directors.

Bramble stepped down as chairman in December as part of the normal leadership changeover.

"He has been a mentor to me, and he was an outstanding chairman," said Rapoport. "He helped us over the past four years as we acquired four other hospitals. He was extremely analytic and incisive in helping us analyze business opportunities for the medical system to grow and strengthen its financial position.

"He still serves on the board, and I value his participation and his judgment. ... I really consider him an outstanding person in our community."

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, called Bramble "one of the finest guys I've ever known, one of the most honorable, one of the most thoughtful, deep-thinking people."

"While I can't predict where his career will take him ... he has terrific skills and there are business leaders who have respect for him," Hutchinson said. "If he wants to continue to work, I'm sure that there'll be a role for him in this town."

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